Major marine biodiversity hotspots occur within and around extended three-dimensional communities known as Marine Animal Forests (MAFs).

MAFs are biotic assemblages mainly composed of suspension-feeding organisms like sponges, gorgonians, hard corals, bryozoans, bivalves, etc., that form canopies like the trees or shrubs on land, thus creating underwater forests.

As Aichi targets have been impossible to achieve by 2020, we need networks that allow working together for the same objective, with special attention to marine ecosystems as the MAFs.

These submersed forests provide ecosystem services which are essential for hundreds of million people worldwide.

In this UN decade of the oceans, we aim to provide the scientific basis for understanding and preserving the ecosystem services of the MAFs throughout the world.

These ecosystem services (nursery grounds, carbon sequestration, biodiversity hotspots, fisheries areas, etc.) are under increasing anthropogenic pressure and need a clear unifying picture to be shared with stakeholders and public. 

Developing a common protocol and gathering a consensus on the most appropriate tools to study and understand the animal forests’ role, will ultimately inform management, restoration, and conservation initiatives.

The MAF WORLD network aims to develop an integrative vision that will fuel research and steer future policies on crosscutting sustainability-driven issues related to the fragmented governance of these benthic ecosystems in coastal and open ocean waters, creating cross-sectoral platform for partners across academia, policymaking, and civil society, offering inclusive spaces for a transdisciplinary dialogue.

We will also unify the protocols for restoration of the MAFs of the World, with nature-based solutions, to face climate change, natural disasters, and food supply.


Research Coordination Objectives

  1. Develop a common theoretical and practical framework for the MAF by an ecosystem approach through a transdisciplinary perspective
  2. Delineate the gaps of knowledge that need study efforts and more coordination
  3. Create and develop uniform protocols for the different subjects covered during the Action (e.g., for trophic ecology, reproduction, growth, physiology, biophysics, bottom mapping, etc.)
  4. Define and list MAF ecosystem components, ecosystem functions and social, economic, and spiritual/cultural services offered by the MAFs
  5. Create a map of threats by identifying and quantifying the degree of damage inflicted by the different impacts on the MAFs.
  6. Develop large-scale protection/restoration plan toolboxes (e.g. reintroduction of filter feeders in eutrophicated areas, restore coral reefs with transplantation, create appropriate citizen science program with specific restoration and education plans, etc.)
  7. Publish standard recommendations for the conservation of MAFs, creating a synergic know-how sharing, from regional to transnational academic and decision-making targets

Capacity-building Objectives

The Action will connect different research teams focused on MAFs. All these groups already work directly or indirectly with the problems and threats that these ecosystems face, so it will be easy to make synergies, find common arguments, and build joint actions to drive scientific progress on this subject. 

  1. Establish an interdisciplinary scientific cluster to connect different research groups that work on MAFs from different fields, fostering synergies around new knowledge, conservation aims and restoration actions. 
  2. Launch a joint agenda of research workshops on this field to advance on current challenges, recognition, and exchange from international experts in the constitution, integration and settlement of the MAF concept from global to local level. 
  3. Foster exchange of scientific experiences to create, share and disseminate knowledge through networking tools as Master teaching, Training Schools (TS) and Short-Term Scientific Missions (STSMs), especially designed for early career scientists (who make up more than 30% of the Action). 
  4. Train and implement new technologies, from recent experiences in the field and laboratory, that will facilitate the work of the different groups in various locations. 
  5. Implement and coordinate a transdisciplinary citizen-science platform as a node for collaboration and engagement among scientists, practitioners, stakeholders, and academia to foster knowledge, research exchange, and bottom-up participation. 
  6. Develop a training workshop agenda in collaboration with partner countries to involve policy makers, decision-makers, practitioners, NGOs and ecosystem managers in actions of conservation and restoration of the MAFs of the world.
  7. Link the theoretical knowhow with practical actions, like assisted evolution, blue carbon mapping, MAF restoration, etc. 


We can summarize the challenge of this Action in one big question:

¿Is it possible to gather all the MAFs of the world under a common umbrella to better highlight their ecological importance and threatened status, and thus facilitate the global coordination of conservation and management plans?

This is the first time that an all-inclusive network of scientific disciplines specialized in MAFs, such as biology, ecology, geophysics, social science, education, and oceanography with a specific focus on coral reefs, sponge grounds, deep corals, coralligene, bivalve or polychaeta beds, etc. will be created. 

This Action is an opportunity to create a common, international and transdisciplinary baseline to compile, organize, and give structure and sense to all the accumulated data on MAFs that is highly fragmented and not exhaustive for the challenges that MAF face nowadays.

This group aims to establish an integrative, holistic and system-wide vision. The development and implementation of diverse approaches to inform research and future policy directions on crosscutting sustainability-driven issues related to the fragmented governance framework of MAF ecosystems within regional waters and open ocean areas will be a major target to be reached in the four-year project and beyond. 

We need to highlight the existence of these complex systems, beyond the actual policy fragmentation, to create more efficient conservation and management tools, with a holistic perspective, giving a clear common message across the natural and social sciences.

The network will put a strong focus on the threats and its impacts on the functioning for the different MAFs originated by 

  1. effects of global warming (temperature in shallow and deep ecosystems), 
  2. ocean acidification (the impacts on the structure, recruitment, and physiology of the main builders), 
  3. sea level rise (the speed of growth of different species for shallow reefs with respect to sea level rise and the impacts on ecosystem functioning), 
  4. hypoxia (considering changes in food availability, hypoxia in spreading dead zones, etc.).
  5. The direct impact of bottom trawling and long-lines, artisanal fisheries, coastal mismanagement, and pollution will be also considered, making a clear state of the art of the effects of these threats to the MAFs.

MAF of the WORLD


One of the aims of this network is to establish an agreed definition of the Marine Animal Forest during the development of the Action, to involve as many elements considered key and important that reflect the transdisciplinarity of the different research fields.  For this reason, the definition will be dynamic, and evolve during this time, to include new advances, concepts and elements that could enrich this magnific concept of Marine Animal Forest.

As a baseline, we will start with the following definition (Rossi, 2013):

“The Marine Animal Forest is a living three-dimensional structure like a vegetation forest but composed basically of sponges, cnidarians, bryozoans, ascidians, and other sessile animal organisms in the ocean benthos (Rossi et al., 2012). These living structures generate and enhance nutrient exchange, as well as capturing and retaining carbon, nitrogen, and other elements from plankton in their structures in complex biogeochemical cycles. The animals may be mainly autotrophic (e.g. symbiotic corals or sponges) or completely heterotrophic (e.g. aposymbiotic gorgonians, bryozoans or ascidians). 

Their self-organising structures allow them to pass from simple to more complex ecosystems, thereby increasing the biomass and biodiversity of other organisms. The more complex animal forests are the result of a long successive history of growth and structuring: the more structured the animal forest, the more capacity to process energy and matter and to retain particles from the more simply organised (and fast-growing) plankton (Gili & Coma, 1998)

The more mature animal forests consist of taller and more branched corals, more complex and bigger sponges, etc., structures that can alter major current flows and particle retention, thus concentrating more zooplankton, eggs, larvae, juveniles, and adults in their surroundings (Baillon et al., 2012). These mature animal forests are also carbon sinks, retaining part of the ocean productivity in structures that may sequester during very long periods primary and secondary productivity of the oceans (Gori et al., 2011; Rossi et al., 2008) 

In contrast, immature animal forests have a smaller surface exposed to the major currents, and therefore their capacity for capturing carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and other elements (and retaining them) is much lower (Rossi et al., 2012)”

Further discussions within the MAF WORLD COST action will optimize such description.


Baillon, S., Hamel, J. F., Wareham, V. E., & Mercier, A. (2012). Deep cold-water corals as nurseries for fish larvae. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 10(7), 351–356.

Gili, J.-M., & Coma, R. (1998). Benthic suspension feeders: their paramount role in littoral marine food webs. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 13(8), 316–321.

Gori, A., Rossi, S., Berganzo, E., Pretus, J. L., Dale, M. R. T., & Gili, J. M. (2011). Spatial distribution patterns of the gorgonians Eunicella singularis, Paramuricea clavata, and Leptogorgia sarmentosa (Cape of Creus, Northwestern Mediterranean Sea). Marine Biology 2010 158:1, 158(1), 143–158.

Rossi, S. (2013). The destruction of the “animal forests” in the oceans: Towards an over-simplification of the benthic ecosystems. Ocean and Coastal Management, 84, 77–85.

Rossi, S., Bramanti, L., Broglio, E., & Gili, J. M. (2012). Trophic impact of long-lived species indicated by population dynamics in the short-lived hydrozoan Eudendrium racemosum. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 467, 97–111.

Rossi, S., Tsounis, G., Orejas, C., Padrón, T., Gili, J. M., Bramanti, L., Teixidó, N., & Gutt, J. (2008). Survey of deep-dwelling red coral (Corallium rubrum) populations at Cap de Creus (NW Mediterranean). Marine Biology 2008 154:3, 154(3), 533–545.

For a general overview and recent work on Marine Animal Forest

Springer Major Reference Book (2017) “Marine Animal Forests: the ecology of benthic biodiversity hotspots”. Rossi S, Bramanti L, Gori A, Orejas C [EDITORS]. Springer, Germany (


Springer Book (2020) “Perspectives on the Marine Animal Forests of the world”. Rossi S, Bramanti L [EDITORS]. Springer, Germany (